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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee

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Contents

After Life &

Funeral Customs

Page1

Body & Spirit

Preparing for One's Demise

Imagery

Assault of Evil Spirits

Spiritual Guide / Daena

Chinvat Peretum - Bridge of the Requiter

Meeting One's Daena at the Chinvat Bridge

Eschatology / Frasho-kereti

Page2

Traditional Ceremonies / Geh Sarnu

Preparatory Arrangements

Death Ceremonies

Removal to the Mortuary

Spiritual Unity - the Payvand Connection

The Fire

Ritual Bath / Sachkar

Wrapping the Kusti

Whispering Prayers in the Deceased's Ears. Final Respects

Demeanour of the Bereaved

Handing Over to the Nasa-Salars or Pall Bearers

Nasa-Salars Mark the Protected Space or Kasha

Prayers for the Departed

Confirmation of Death / Sagdid

Placing the Body on the Bier / Gehan

Funeral Procession in Payvand Connection

Final Sagdid

Placing the Body in the Tower

Beholding by the Sun / Khursheed Nigerishn

Disposal of the Deceased's Clothes & Shroud

Farewell Prayers

Prayers for the first Four Days

Page3

Mortuary

Private Homes

Neighbourhood Mortuaries / Nasa-Khana or Margzad

Bungli

Methods of Laying the Dead to Rest

Towers of Silence / Dakhma

Other Methods

Modern Practices

Stone / Concrete Protected Graves

Ancient Practices

Ossuary / Ossuaries

Stone Tombs

Funerary Couches

Memorial Prayers

Ossuary Use by Ancient Zoroastrians

Page 2. Body & Spirit. Traditional Ceremonies / Geh Sarnu


» Page 1: Body & Spirit. Preparing for One's Demise. Imagery

» Page 3: Mortuary. Methods of Laying the Dead to Rest. Memorial Prayers

» Additional reading: Ossuary use by Ancient Zoroastrians


Traditional Ceremonies / Geh Sarnu

Zoroastrian funeral ceremonies, the geh sarnu, are defined by simplicity and cleanliness. Death is seen as a great equalizer. In the words of the Persian poet Saadi, death , "che bar takht murdan, che bar rui-i-khak", "whether one dies on a throne or on a floor made of earth," the Zoroastrian methods of laying a body to rest, is egalitarian. Rather than building monuments and mausoleums for the departed, their memory is expected to live on it the hearts and prayers of their families and subsequent generations.

In the days before refrigeration, funeral ceremonies for the departed took place immediately after death - if possible within the period of one gah or six hours. If a person passed away in the late evening or night, the ceremonies were concluded before the end of the next day. It any event, the ceremonies were to be concluded no later than a day after death.

The ancients felt that decomposition of the body starts after one gah or six hours, after which time contact with the living, except by designated handlers who had undergone ritual cleansing, was to be scrupulously avoided. The Zoroastrians of old noted that it is the flesh that rots but not the bones. They also noted that decaying flesh had the potential of carrying disease and polluting the environment - the earth, water and air. The injunction in scripture (Vendidad 6. 44-45) is that while all respect is to the afforded to the deceased, no injury or harm should come to the living.

The ceremonies, rituals and prayers that are conducted in the geh immediately following the demise of a person are called in geh sarnu (Phl. gahan-srayishn).

Today, with the introduction of refrigeration and climate controlled morgues, and with families dispersed over long distances, these stipulations are being relaxed to some degree. Funeral ceremonies are sometimes conducted a day or two after the person has passed away in order to give family time to congregate and bid their farewells.

These notes describe funeral ceremonies and procedures for a body that will be placed in a tower of silence. The principles can be used to adapt other methods of laying the body to rest.


Preparatory Arrangements

When an individual's death is imminent, family members or close friends start to make preparations for the passing away and funeral service. As in other cultures, relatives and friends are summoned to be with the dying individual.

Individuals will often have told their family or friends what method of laying to rest they prefer. If not, the closest members of the family will try and ascertain what method the individual would have preferred and decide on the most suitable method.

A priest may be called to visit and recite the patet - prayers of repentance for past sins (click here for a patet prayer).) . The ailing individual will either recite the patet prayers unaided, the priest may guide the recitation, or the priest may recite the prayers on behalf of the ailing individual.

Where possible, the priest will bring some haoma prepared in advance during a yasna ceremony. The ailing individual will drink a few sips and if the person is unable to drink the haoma, a few drops will be gently placed in her or his mouth.

Among the preparations made for the death of an individual and traditional death ceremonies, are the washing of a sudrah and simple loose old white cotton clothes which will be put on the body after a ritual bath (see below), the acquisition of a white sheet that will be used as a shroud (four meters in length for an adult) and two additional white cotton bed sheets that will be laid under and over the body.


Death Ceremonies

Removal to the Mortuary

When the person passes away, family members are summoned and the body is removed to a mortuary that consists of a bathing room and a hall where the washed body is placed and prayers conducted. The hall is large enough to hold the body and seating for all who wish to attend the funeral services.

Two priests who will conduct the funeral services are informed and a schedule for the funeral service is established.

There is some local variation in the methods and the sequence of steps.


Spiritual Unity - the Payvand Connection

Payvand means to unite, join, link and connect. For Zoroastrians, payvand is also a ritual connection symbolizing solidarity that results in a spiritual synergy. During a funeral ceremony, all principle steps or actions that have spiritual significance are performed by individuals working in pairs and connected in some fashion. The connection is established by holding hands, holding a kusti, a kerchief, a scarf (or any strip of cloth), or in some other way.


The Fire

In the main hall, either the priests or a family member light a fire in a censer - a fire that is kept burning throughout the ceremonies. Incense (loban) is sprinkled on the fire from time to time.

Once the body has been cleansed and clothed as below, a lit oil lamp is also sometimes placed close to the deceased person’s head.


Ritual Bath / Sachkar

At the earliest opportunity, the body of the deceased is thoroughly washed by an even number, say two, of family members or individuals who know the procedure. The washing is performed using gomez (taro, or white bull's urine) followed by well water. Some systems omit the water wash. The gomez acts as an anti-bacterial disinfectant, and in the old days, its use in cleansing helped prevent the spread of infectious diseases. When gomez was not available, ash was used instead.

Nowadays, the use of gomez is symbolic and often omitted, the body being washed with available water only, a practice that the orthodox find objectionable since the water is now considered polluted due to the omitting of the disinfecting provided by the anti-bacterial gomez. However, given modern sanitation, if the bath is performed shortly after death and certainly within the first six hours of a gah, the concerns regarding polluting water and spreading disease may be alleviated.

The individuals who wash the body sometimes wear gloves made of wool.


Wrapping the Kusti

After washing the body, family members dress the body in the recently washed old white cotton clothes including the sudrah and a prayer cap is placed on its head. Then while reciting the kusti prayers, the nearest relative, wraps a kusti, the girdle worn by Zoroastrians after initiation, around the body. If possible, the wrapping of the kusti is done by the eldest son or daughter of the father or mother respectively.

There are some variations in the next steps. In one system, the body is carried to the main hall and temporarily placed on a white sheet laid on a bed or on the floor.


Whispering Prayers in the Deceased's Ears. Final Respects

After the body is placed on the sheet, two family members will seat themselves close to the body and one of them will whisper the ashem vohu and yatha ahu variyo prayers close to a ear of the deceased. They will then begin to continuously recite the ashem vohu prayer. Other family members and friends present will be invited to approach the body and pay their last respects.

Up to this point, family members and friends can touch, kiss, hug or approach the body.


Demeanour of the Bereaved

In saying their goodbyes and paying their respects to the deceased, Zoroastrians believe that displaying excessive grief at their loss makes it difficult for the soul to leave this world and move on to the next.

For this reason, Zoroastrians refrain from excessive displays of grief and loss. The purpose of the funeral services and prayers is to aid and not hinder the soul on its journey.


Handing Over to the Nasa-Salars or Pall Bearers

Next, the body of the deceased is handed over to the care of nasa-salars, the pall-bearers, who will have prepared themselves for their duties by undergoing a ritual bath, performing the kusti prayers, and donning a new set of clean white clothes. They also wear white gloves, the dastana and a padan, a veil-like covering over their faces - in a manner similar to doctors.

Nasa salar means the caretaker, keeper or controller (salar) of the nasa (the agents of disease and contamination).

The nasa-salars enter the hall containing the deceased, walking in pairs and with payvand connection. A kusti held between the nasa-salars provides the connection.

Upon the arrival of the nasa-salars, the two family members stationed beside the deceased relinquish their places to the nasa-salars, and from this point on, only the nasa-salars may touch or handle the body.

The nasa-salars lift the body from its temporary resting place and place it in a corner of the front room on a large slab of stone, a slab made of three stone tiles placed on a raised surface. In doing so, they wrap the body with a shroud, leaving only the face uncovered. The top corners of the shroud are knotted under the chin and the bottom corners are knotted near the feet.


Nasa-Salars Mark the Protected Space or Kasha

After covering the body with its shroud, the nasa-salars scrape, draw with sand or place a sting to mark the outline of the kash / kasha or protected space around the body. Only the nasa-salars can enter the protected space. This line is placed three paces away from the body, a distance designed in the old days to prevent infection.

After completing this task, the nasa-salars stand to one side or leave the room to await the conclusion of the prayers by the priests.


Prayers for the Departed

The prayers for the deceased - primarily the yasna that includes the gathas - are recited by two priests. During the recital of the yasna's ahunavaiti gatha, the priests stand on the outer circle - three paces away from the body - in payvand connection. Their connection is accomplished by a white strip of cloth between them.


Confirmation of Death / Sagdid

Halfway through the recital of Yasna 31.4, a special dog 'four-eyed' (chatur-chasma) dog - a dog with two eye-like spots above its eyes - is brought before the body to confirm death in a ritual called sagdid (dog-sight). If the dog stares steadily at the body, then the person is still alive. If the dog does not look at the body, the passing away of the person is confirmed.

In the days before doctor-issued death certificates, the sagdid ritual was particularly important to ensure that a coma was not being mistaken for death. The behaviour of the dog was found to be a particularly reliable test when repeated at least three times during the process and once during the start of each gah (six hour division of the day). It stands to reason that in the old days, the first sagdid would have been performed as soon as the body was brought to the mortuary.

After the sagdid the praying of the yasna continues.


Placing the Body on the Bier / Gehan

At the conclusion of the prayers, if the body is to be placed in a tower of silence, the nasa-salars enter the mortuary's hall carrying an iron bier (stretcher), or gehan. They place one of the white cotton bed sheets supplied by the family of the bier, lift the body using the shroud, and place the body on the bier. After the body has been placed on the bier, they tie a string to one of the bier handles and wrap the string around the bier seven times repeating a yatha-ahu-variyo prayer with each wrap of the string. The ritual provides the body with continued spiritual protecting against demonic forces during its journey to the tower.

After the conclusion of the seven wraps and yatha-ahu-variyo prayers, the nasa-salars place the second white cotton bed sheet supplied by the family over the body and tie each corner of the sheet to the four handles of the bier. This is done to secure the body to the bier. Alternatively, they secure the body using straps of cloth.

In some large communities, the nasa-salars hand the bier and body over to khandhias, pall bearers designated to enter the tower and remove the three slabs on which the body had been resting. They place the slabs aside to be cleaned later with gomez (taro or white bull's urine), which acts as a disinfectant, and water.


Funeral Procession in Payvand Connection

An even number (two, four, or six depending on the weight of the deceased) of nasa-salars carry the body to the tower. A short distance behind, they are followed by a procession of family and friends walking in pairs led by the two officiating priests. The procession participants walk in payvand connection by holding hands or by holding two ends of a handkerchief, scarf or some other available piece of cloth or string.

Nowadays, if the tower of silence is not within walking distance of the mortuary, the procession accompanies the body to the hearse, follows the hearse to the tower in a line of cars, and regroups at the tower grounds to accompany the body from the hearse to the entrance of the tower.


Final Sagdid

At the tower, the procession reform and walk up to a stone (marble) slab placed on a raised platform a short distance from the outer walls of the tower. The body is placed on a marble platform to enable a final sagdid - a confirmation of death by a special dog.


Placing the Body in the Tower

Carrying the body to the tower
Carrying the body to the tower

After a re-confirmation of death by the dog, procession remains behind while the pall bearers, the khandhias or nasa-salars, take the body to the tower of silence They do so by ascending a set of steps on the east wall of the tower, steps that lead up to a solid iron door, the only entrance to the tower.

No one other than the designated pall bearers can enter the tower, and the insides of the tower are not visible to the congregation.


Beholding by the Sun / Khursheed Nigerishn

The body is placed in the tower before sunset to allow the body to be bathed by the light of the sun, a process called khursheed nigerishn or beholding by the sun.

Once a body, is placed in a designated area, the pall bearers remove the clothes from the body. Naked one comes into the world and naked one leaves.


Disposal of the Deceased's Clothes & Shroud

The shroud and clothes that had covered the body cannot be used for any purpose and must be disposed. The cloth and clothes are disposed in an impervious pit outside the tower where they disintegrate aided by lime or acid. When the pall bearers exit the tower, they throw the shroud and clothes into the pit.


Farewell Prayers

While the pall bearers place and prepare the body inside the tower, the family and friends who have accompanied the body to the tower, retire to a nearby prayer hall called a sagri and say their farewell prayers for the soul of the deceased. Inside this hall is a fire or an oil lamp that is kept burning continuously. A window in the hall provides a view of the tower. When they see the pall bearers exit the tower and dispose of the deceased's clothing, the family and friends return to their homes.


Prayers for the first Four Days

Special prayers are said for the soul of the departed during the next three days culminating at 3:30 am on the fourth day, the time when the soul makes it journey across the chinvat bridge. The prayers are designed to aid the soul on its journey.

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